The Films of 2016: No Home Movie

When Chantal Akerman died last fall I wrote that her films are less esoteric and forbidding than their reputations would suggest.  Akerman’s engagement with “big” ideas—migration, feminism, capitalism—is often rooted in familiar domestic environments.  With No Home Movie, her final film (it was completed shortly before her death), Akerman has made one of her most accessible and personal works.  No Home Movie functions as a documentary portrait of Akerman’s elderly mother Natalia, a Polish Jew who settled in Belgium in the 1940s and who, at the time of filming, lived alone in a modestly furnished Brussels apartment.  It also speaks to the broader themes and motifs of Akerman’s body of work as a whole, acting as a kind of summation of her entire career.    

Death hangs over the film, over the course of which Natalia’s health slowly declines.  In a move that is typical of her oblique approach to narrative, Akerman marks her mother’s passing as a structuring absence: we know Natalia has died because in the film’s final shots she appears to have vanished from the apartment.  No Home Movie is also inevitably colored by the knowledge of Akerman’s suicide, which would follow her mother’s death by two years and may have been incited by depression and grief over her loss.  The familiar domestic routines and rituals seen here as well as throughout Akerman’s filmography—shots of women eating and cooking, sitting at tables, watching television—take on a poignant resonance within this context.  Akerman, who made a career out of observing women’s lives, observes more pointedly than ever how those lives may be reducible to a succession of humble, repetitive moments.  Within such a context, death may be little more than the ceasing of that routine.

But No Home Movie is also one of Akerman’s warmest and most humane films.  Talking each other in the kitchen of Natalia’s apartment, or via Skype, the two women are effusive in their affection for each other.  One of their Skype conversations ends with an almost comically protracted series of goodbyes, endearments, and virtual kisses.  The scene calls to mind Akerman’s 1977 film News from Home, in which Natalia sends a series of letters to Akerman in New York City, begging for replies that she never seems to receive.  Where that film suggests a strained relationship between Akerman mere et fille, No Home Movie suggests reparation, reconciliation, and communication.  The film’s most compelling moments are its simplest: sitting at the kitchen table together, Akerman asks her mother about her childhood, her life as a young wife and mother, her experiences during the Holocaust.  It’s a domestic scene that’s a million miles from the quietly chilling kitchen-table scenes in, say, Jeanne Dielman.  In short, it’s a scene of home—even though, as its title suggests (and as the loss of both Akerman and her mother prove), you can’t go home again.

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